Last night we travelled from Hong Kong to Japan. The Hong Kong MTR is so smart..there is a place right in town where you can check your bags for all the major airlines. This means you can easily take the MTR from the center of town to the airport without lugging a ton of bags on and off platforms. When bag-lugging is out the equation it is a no brainer to take public transport. It was a 4-hour Cathay flight. I already wrote about the hour after we landed. I think it ended in my 19th nervous breakdown…?
It was actually comical to look back on our reaction to the warning. We all just looked at each other. I think we would have sprung into action if anyone else in the airport was in flight along with her. The rest of the airport was business as normal- it was just she alone running for her life. Because of this she came across like a delusional Nostradamus so we just scratched our heads looking around…my husband didn't miss a beat with his phone call. The woman came back 20 minutes later and explained that all the cell phones in the entire airport simultaneously went off and when she questioned what was going on and was told about the earthquake she took off- she didn't need to be told more than once. It was in Tokiochen or some place like that, which sound a lot like Tokyo to her I am sure. It would have creeped me out too to hear 5000 cells phones all ring at once. I asked if there is an app or something and there is not, apparently the whole infrastructure contacts anyone on it with such warnings to ensure they can act quickly. I am glad I missed creepy bells ringing part- I would have for sure been out the door with her. Thank God Tokiochen (or whatever it is called) was far enough away to not effect us. I asked a member of airport staff what we should have done had it been an actual earthquake effecting this area. I thought t was a doorway you seek, never heard of a pole. She considered the question of what to do and looked at me after her moment of thought and simply said..run.
An hour bus ride later we were at the Mandarin Oriental soaking up on a late Valentine's splurge. Check-in was on the 38th floor. This seems to be a big thing here in Asian cities- having the high floor general lobby, restaurants and check in. It makes such good sense because the view is always stunning. Tokyo is IMMENSE! High rises for as far as you can see. I have no dependable internet again so am writing this unaided by research but plan to do some comparing of New York, London, Hong Kong and Tokyo. It sure looks to me like the biggest city I have ever seen. Just an hour at the Oriental and the kids were brought little black boxes containing 2 levels of goodness- the top level of the box contained a cookie with their name on it- correct spelling and all, the 2nd layer a stash of popcorn. Accompanying the little magical wooden box was a jug of milk. They were delighted to say the least. The bath was big enough for them all so that is where they retired to after dinner…the 3 of them soaking in a bath with their milk and cookies on the ledge. We are raising these girls right. While they soak I notice the flashlight and earthquake instructions in the room. Did you know you are supposed to put on your shoes before you run for your life so you can contend with the debris? This is weird.
I continue my study of the lovely inhabitants of our host country. A large percentage of the guys have this John Lennon thing going on. I wonder now if John was a very cool, very talented…copycat? Did he get his cool vibe from his exposure to Japan through Yoko. It is hard to digest but seems much more plausible than all of the men in Japan copying John. They have little glasses and some manscaping on their face- like little goatees and stashes, sideburn action. Their pants are all diagonal in the seams like motorcycle pants always seem to be. The guys with the vertical seams all seem to pair them with boots. No too many Chinese guys rocked this vibe, actually none. With the benefit of near side by side cultural comparison I notice right away that Chinese were taller, thicker hair, more stoic and traditional and genuinely more polite. The Chinese coolio men had rolled up baggy pants and multi edged hair doos. The Chinese occasionally do a head nod but the Japanese majorly bow. They bow so much it almost seems like a compulsion. The Japanese women are more likely to have altered their hair color- mostly brown. Both the men and women seem to have more western mouths than the Chinese. I can't tell if it just because their behavioral makes for a more animated use of the muscles in that region or if it is a bone structure thing. We have encountered some very lovely Japanese people in our short time here but as a group they are much more reserved and less outgoing/friendly. This does not come across as mean by any standard, just more individualistic, less focused on making a connection with the people in their midst. They can get a bit touchy if you break an important rule, the Chinese seem more easy going. I need to research their government and some history. I am embarrassed to say I don't know much about it other than the fateful places their history overlapped with my country of origin's, and they weren't particularly good times so it is probably a good idea to do some updating- once sound internet returns. We have also been noticing the writing/characters since our arrival. Japanese writing is more artsy and freeform than the Chinese, which are very geometric. When in China we started recognizing characters and their meaning- we probably knew about 20 by heart from our time there. A lot of them were logical renditions of what they represented so easy to remember. The Japanese writing looks way harder to master- but you do want to frame them they are so lovely.
After a breakfast of congee (rice porridge) and dim sum we head off to the train. Three trains later, a tram then a funicular and we are hanging in the sky by a cable gazing at the snow-covered Mount Fuji. It is the quintessential conical volcano with a giant crater at the top. Very cool, and we were very lucky to see it. They say it is shy and hides in the fog many days. We then board a boat and take another 20-minute journey, disembark at a town and pull our suitcase through the streets willing our way to our ryokan. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese guest house- where the Japanese frequent….not a western thing at all which made it our brave effort at cultural immersion. We NEVER would have found it without the blue dot- there was no English on the sign at all and we couldn't duplicate the name too well by characters. There is not a lick of English on our entire journey. Hong Kong was much more easy to navigate. Thus far today, the airport, the train system, all of it has been navigated by large portion intuition.
The man at the ryokin greets us and starts right off - do you speak any Japanese….at all?? We say no and he gives us a look. This is not going to be easy for any of us is the conclusion. A very short woman in traditional kimono sees us to our room. There is a very large structure on the back of her waist- it reminds me of those things like the flying nuns used to wear only tied up on the midsection instead of affixed to the head. What is it, some sort of cartilage? I see random Japanese household things stashed inside of it, the kids pick up on a lighter. Our room has a vestibule with a bunch of slippers and a shelf. We kick off our shoes and don the slippers. I take a step up to the main area, which is a rectangular shaped room covered in totami mat. The woman flashes her arms and starts going off. I see the slippers are not allowed up here. They are for walking around in the hotel, not in the room. It is amazing what gestures and tones of voice can relay. I kick them off like there is a scorpion inside and go up a level. There is a little sink right as you step up into the room and a toilet behind a door. The toilet area has its own dedicated single pair of slippers in it. Centered on the totami mat is a traditional short table surrounded by floor pillows and 3 groundlevel chairs with backs. Rice paper panels cover the windows. The kids shout with joy- they feel so tall! We are issued what they call yukatas. I guess they are casual robes whereas kimonos are more formal. There is some back and forth with getting the right fit and then we strip to don our threads and the woman yells and flaps her arms around again. We freeze and she runs out the room. A minute later she comes back with a small white paper clipped to a larger photocopied paper with printed text. The small white paper has handwritten in fresh ink 3 bulleted points:
- I wear a yukata with putting on underwear.
- Please spend a hotel with a yukata.
- The meal is all right as a yukata, too.
The man at the front desk must have written it for her. So you only partially disrobe. We all take the underwear pledge. She helps us tie our yukatas, which have back up protection against coming undone with a long tied, and tucked strap covered with a broader and longer over strap that then ties in a bow in the back. They are pretty…but the stomach cinching feels like a postural support. I notice my youngest spying the woman's feet as she ties our yukatas. Her feet are in Japanese socks with a crease between the 2nd and 3rd toes strategically placed for wearing traditional Japanese thong sandals. My daughter can't take her eyes off this woman's feet. In a nonchalant way I see her even sneak a picture of them. Later I ask her about it and she recounts her stream of consciousness at the time. She imagined the woman's feet as some sort of cloven hoof and arrived that they were likely deer feet under her socks. Wow. They were all puffy and small and add the socks with the crease and it was really unique looking- undoubtedly her feet were bound as a child.
Paperclipped under the handwritten pledge is a paper on bathing etiquette. Thank God! This part of cultural discovery was weighing heavy on our minds. Ryokins include onsens, which are public baths usually tapped into a hot spring. There are instructions and accompanying drawings- it is magnificent. We read the text as it has some broken English, but the drawing really says it all. You sit on your little floor stool all naked in front of your mirror and with your own tap, bucket and hand sprayer. You wash yourself, rinse and only get in the bath once you are clean and rinsed. According to the drawings if you do not rinse, the people in the general area will give you dirty looks and their mouths will drop open. If you bring a washcloth into the bath with you there will be actual scorn relayed to you by an old woman. Thank God for this paper, we have been spared.
We go to dinner at our allotted time and it is a series of low individual tables all set up gorgeously. The 3 girls on one side facing the middle, and my husband and I on the other side facing them. There is quite a display of lots of little bites of things I mostly can't recognize. One dish is over fire still cooking- ah, the lighter in the kimono stash. The serving pieces are gorgeous. Almost every little bowl on our individual trays has a lid that can be turned over and used as a dish. The food was almost all tasty and the kids did great and thought so too. My favorite discovery on the spread was the cooked lettuce. I never knew cooked lettuce tasted so good. It is definitely being adopted into our repertoire after this trip. We all love the individual bowls and little indentations in the plates that cradle little dollups of sauce.
We have pudding back in our room and marvel over the small beautiful bowls and spoons. The portion is so tiny but it feels so satisfying because it of how it is presented. The kids all chime in that they eat portions of pudding ten times this and don't need to…they would rather have a taste of pudding like this every night then a giant bowl of it just once in a while. Sounds good to me. Our favorite things are sticking to us. We left Hong Kong with chopsticks and now we decide our Japanese wish list must include some yukatas and traditional plates/bowls/spoons.
We actually have 2 rooms but opt to all sleep in one as the other smells of cigarettes and is chilly. We head back from dinner ready to onsen. The baths are separated by sex and the entrances are color codes- women are read, men purple. Can you imagine if we didnt get this information! We do just as the picture told us to and had the place to ourselves- a blessing for your first public bath in the nude.
Back to the room to blog and sleep and we get a better look at the sleeping arrangment. These aren't what you typically think of as futons…they are mats on the floor, with an additional mat on top of it. The whole double mat thing probably measures about 4 inches thickness in total. There is a fluffy duvet on top and the duvet cover is cut in the same pattern as a Kleenex box topper. It covers the bottom and edges of the duvet but the top has an elliptical hole in it where you can view the duvet underneath. The duvet is a gorgeous floral print. The pillows are strange- they have beans in the middle. It is going to be interesting to see how my back tolerates this …
From Hakone, in Japan, at longitude 139 and latitude 35.